Save for a couple games in 2019, the East Carolina University football team largely struggled to run the football. With an average of 141.3 yards per game, the Pirates ranked 91st in rushing offense in the NCAA and only punched the football into the endzone 12 times on the ground while averaging less than four yards per carry.

Heading into the season, the Pirates had their bell-cow running back in junior Darius Pinnix Jr. as he beat out Hussein Howe and others in the preseason for the right to line up in the backfield against NC State in Week 1. The early returns on Pinnix were promising as the big, physical back racked up 134 yards on 21 attempts with two touchdowns against Gardner-Webb University a week later.

Those results, however, were quickly extinguished as Pinnix ended up missing the vast majority of 2019 with an injury. With Pinnix sidelined, the Pirates were forced to turn to underclassmen in Demetrius Mauney, Trace Christian and Tay Williams to pick up the carries.

“Last year, we come through the spring and Pinnix had really established himself as probably the guy that maybe we could build it around with a really good spring practice, and then a really good camp coming through that at the start of the year,” ECU’s Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks coach Donnie Kirkpatrick told Patrick Johnson on 94.3 The Game on Friday.

“Then when he got injured and we didn’t get him back to the last couple of weeks, we were really searching for: who’s the guy. What happened is one guy would step up one week and then the next week it’d be somebody else and it was kind of a revolving door.”

Mauney, who was a true freshman last year, found himself at the front of that revolving door frequently. Four times in 2019 Mauney topped 50 yards on the ground, including a 107-yard game against Gardner-Webb. He also chipped in 74 yards on 21 attempts against the University of Central Florida, scoring his first career collegiate touchdown in the process.

“Demetrius Mauney was a true freshman that I think did an outstanding job of playing hard, learning the system quickly,” Kirkpatrick said. “But I think it was probably a little bit more than he thought even he was going to be doing in his freshman year.”

While the Pirates received solid efforts by both Christain and Williams in relief of Mauney, both Howe and Williams have since entered the transfer portal and will not be a part of ECU’s program moving forward. Before December’s recruiting period bolstered the running back position for Mike Houston’s Pirates, they only had four running backs on the roster in Mauney, Pinnix, Christian and redshirt freshman Asa Barnes.

Sensing running backs coach De’Rail Sims needed some extra depth in the position room, the Pirates went out and signed two during the early signing period and added another via the transfer portal in Chase Hayden.

“The addition of some older guys to come in and bridge that gap a little bit,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think we’ve signed some really, really good incoming guys. One was able to come mid-semester, one was not, but then we lost the spring practice with him. We were really concerned if we just had enough fire-power at that position and so that’s why we investigated the portal a little bit.”

Hayden, a graduate transfer from Arkansas, will bring much-needed experience and depth to a position group that struggled to post consistent numbers in the absence of Pinnix in 2019.

In two years of on-field production for the Razorbacks, Hayden racked up 500 rushing yards and found the endone four times. Despite only 105 collegiate carries, the 5’10”, 205-pound back averaged 4.76 yards per carry, including a 5.5 clip in 2018.

Rahjai Harris is the mid-semester enrollee Kirkpatrick mentioned above and was touted as one of the best running backs to come out of South Carolina this recruiting cycle. In four varsity seasons, Harris posted over 3,500 yards on the ground, scoring 46 touchdowns in 44 games. 

The 6’0” back ended his prep career by averaging 131.4 yards per game across 11 contests, scoring the ball 21 times.

Keaton Mitchell, who offers a completely different skill set with his 5’9”, 170-pound frame, was a top-20 running back out of the state of Georgia, and for good reason. In each of his final two high school seasons, Mitchell topped 2,000 rushing yards and 40 touchdowns. As a junior, Mitchell averaged 11.8 yards per carry, ending his prep career averaging a 10.6 clip and 115.4 yards per contest.

“The one thing I’ve learned over the years is, you can never have too many good players,” Kirkpatrick said. “The season is long, it’s physical, especially for a running back. They take so much punishment. They got the ball and everybody — the attention is on them defensively, so they’re taking so many hits. I don’t think we’ll ever be too deep there.”

With two of the highest rated running backs in South Carolina and Georgia on its roster and a SEC transfer in Hayden, ECU has turned a weakness into what should be a strength for the upcoming season.

Hayden, Pinnix and Mauney all figure to compete for the starting job whenever preseason workouts begin. While the Pirates will no doubt redshirt one, if not more, of their running backs, both Harris and Mitchell could make a real impact for a team that needs all the game-changing talent it can get.

“I’m excited about the running back position,” Kirkpatrick said. “Coach Sims, it’ll be a lot of his job to get that organized and have a good competitive room in there that will also pull for each other but will be competitive enough that they’ll have to work hard, play hard and earn those reps and touches with the football.”

Listen to Donnie Kirkpatrick’s full comments about the Pirates’ run game to Patrick Johnson that first aired on 94.3 The Game on Friday below:

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